Recall attempt unfolds in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his country’s movement for independence and democracy are facing a new round of destabilization efforts. Venezuela, the world’s fifth largest oil-producing country, is facing a recall battle. Like the recall battle some 4,000 miles from Caracas – in California – the Bush administration’s markings are all over this one, too.

Chavez’s homegrown opposition – mainly Venezuelan big business interests, which enjoy support from the White House – orchestrated a coup in 2002 and an oil lockout/strike in 2003. The White House met with coup leaders before their April 11 seizure and the U.S. was the first country to hail the coup d’etat.

One of the coup leaders, facing criminal charges in Venezuela, fled the country to Miami. Associated Press reports that “business leader Carlos Fernandez, who led a devastating two-month strike that failed to oust Chavez this year,” is considering applying for political asylum.

Aug. 19 marked the half-way point of Chavez’s six-year term and the time when, according to the Venezuelan Constitution, a recall referendum can be held. The opposition turned in more than the 2.4 million signatures needed to trigger a recall referendum. However, there are charges pending with the newly-appointed National Electoral Council (CNE) that the opposition’s signatures are invalid.

Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel filed a complaint with state prosecutors against the private group Sumate, which had coordinated the nationwide collection of pro-recall signatures. Rangel said Sumate violated electoral law by gathering the signatures in early February, months before the half-way point of Chavez’s term.

“All this process [was carried out] without the involvement of the National Electoral Council, the electoral power,” Rangel said in a statement, also calling for a criminal inquiry into the funding and activities of Sumate, which describes itself as a non-profit, nongovernmental organization but is linked to the opposition. A quick glance on the internet finds a slide show on a signature campaign, which took place in February in south Florida. The CNE’s ruling on the signatures are pending.

And despite a fraudulent statement released to the press, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled that if Chavez loses the recall, he can still run for re-election. The opposition is split on a candidate if a recall happens and Chavez loses.

U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro met with the CNE and offered help from a U.S.-based group, the International Foundation for Election Systems. Chavez sharply criticized Shapiro and the meeting with the CNE, Sept. 7. Chavez said, “what [Shapiro] has done is clearly an interference by the United States in the domestic concerns of Venezuela.” The CNE is made up of five appointees: two pro-Chavez, two anti-government and one “neutral.” Opposition opinion polls are giving a skewed picture of Chavez’s support.

One such polling outfit claims Chavez would lose a recall by a margin of 2-1. Yet according to Mark Weisbrot, from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, much of the evidence supporting such a claim is non-existent or biased. Weisbrot said the polling group, GQR/POS, did not conduct strictly neutral or objective polls, even though they are often reported as such.

Weisbrot also compares a 38 percent popularity rating for Chavez, even with a massive anti-Chavez campaign in the media, to a recent poll on Peru’s President Alejandro Toledo: “Toledo in Peru, where the economy is growing and the media is not part of the opposition … has 11 percent approval ratings.”

The opposition, invoking anti-communism, attacks the Chavez government as trying to shape Venezuela into a “Cuban-style communist state.”

Venezuela’s foreign policy seeks close, working relationships with Cuba as well as other Caribbean and South American countries. Venezuela is utilizing these relations to bolster medical care, especially in their badly neglected ghettos. Chavez’s government has begun programs where Cuban doctors and professionals work in Venezuela delivering health and education services to the poor.

The recall attempt comes at a time when the struggle around the Free Trade Area of the Americas is intensifying. The Chavez government is opposed to FTAA and any attempt by U.S. corporate interests to dominate the economies of South America.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org